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Pack Cycling: Beating Roadies at their own game

In pack cycling, the outcome is often decided by a your tactical plan and your fitness.

As triathletes we spend a lot of our time out on the roads cycling but, while we may be fitter than our cycling companions, it can be frustrating being the strongest in the group but getting beaten to that town sign or designated finish line. To do that, you need to work on skills and tactics to finesse the victory out of the road rider’s hands.

In pack cycling, the outcome is often decided by a combination of your tactical plan and your fitness. Riding into a head wind or at higher speeds, you can save lots of energy riding behind another cyclist. You can see this easily on a fast downhill (or lesser downhill with a headwind). The front rider will be pedaling hard, while the second rider is coasting. This is known as drafting.

An exercise to help cyclists visualize energy conservation is to think of all the riders in the group as ice cubes. The fitter the cyclist is, the larger ice cube they will be on the starting line. In a triathlon, or any other individual event, the biggest ice cube, or strongest athlete, would surely be the winner.  In pack cycling, though, every time you are out of the draft from the group – riding beside the pack, out in front or passing people on an uphill – you are causing yourself to melt, even if it feels like you’re going easy. The best cyclists are the ones who hide out in the pack all day, conserving energy, waiting for larger ice cubes to melt.

For successful group riding, you need to know your competition and the course so that you can formulate a plan to maximize your advantages and minimize the competition’s strengths. As triathletes, we love to go hard and can ride at a reasonably fast pace. We lack the explosive power necessary to drop the field on the flats, though, and will suffer a little more when responding to attacks, or short fast climbs. The largest mistake that most triathletes make is that they spending too much time pulling at the front in the initial phase of the ride. At the start of a cycling event, everyone feels great and the pace is generally very high. Look at the speedometer, if you are riding along at high speed, you will have to average another 3 km/h faster to establish a gap and stay away.  Later on the group’s pace will drop 3 to 5 km/h. If you have ridden within your limits and prevented your ice cube from melting, it’s now time to make a move…

Attacking a pack is not just about going hard.  It is inefficient to attack when the group is going flat out. After a flurry of attacks, just as the group slows down, is the ideal time to accelerate. You want to start your attack from at least 10th place or farther back so that you will be able to surprise the leaders as you come past. Once you have made your move, keep looking forward and pedaling solidly for a minute before sneaking a look back to see what’s going on. If there are other riders with you, you need to swing over and encourage them to pull through, and share the wind-breaking responsibilities.  If the entire field is still there, or people are unwilling to pull with you, it’s probably time to rest up and re-evaluate the situation.

You want to be at the front of the group for short, steep climbs. Depending on the size of the pack it is possible to loose 30 to 45 seconds and still remain in the pack. If the hill is longer, you should try to make a gentle attack and hope to gain a 5- to 15-second advantage during the final kilometer before the climb. That way you can ride at your own pace for the first half of the hill and, by the time the group catches up with you, they won’t be as energetic.

Sprinting with other cyclists is unlikely to end in a triathlete’s favour. Sprintinng and attacking is not part of the triathlete’s skill set. If a triathlete sprints with someone from a cycling background, the cyclist will always win. Your goal is to rid yourself of the adversaries before the sprint starts. Whether or not you have been successful in getting yourself in a breakaway, it is imperative that you attack with everything you have during the final one to three kilometers. Once you have committed to your attack, do not look back. You should not stop pedaling until you cross the finish line.

When it comes to bike racing, there is no perfect plan which will work every time. The key is to have a plan, and a backup plan, and execute them to the best of your ability. Review things after the rce and remember what worked well and what did not.

Safety concerns

1.      If you are riding your tri-bike in a group, no matter how comfortable you are, or whatever your position, stay off of the tri-bars and keep your hands near to the brakes. The only exception is if you have a solo break away.

2.      Be sure to avoid any sudden swerves, stops or turns. The safety of those behind you depends on your riding predictably. If you do need to stop for something you need to check for riders in your blind spot, signal your intention to turn by pointing and gradually move out of the main path. When stopping, hold your hand out behind you to indicate that you will be stopping, then gradually slow down.

Where to look:
Remember when your little league batting coach told you to keep your eye on the ball to help you hit it?  The same applies in cycling, except that you don’t want to hit the wheel or pothole in front of you. You want to keep your eyes looking forward scanning the flow of the pack. This will not only alert you to potential holes or hazards, but also, let you monitor which riders are looking strong and who looks like they are getting ready to attack.

Nat Faulkner is a former pro cyclist and Canadian national road cycling champion.